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Its Complicated

Book Review of: Its Complicated

The Social Lives of Networked Teens

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Review of Its Complicated, by Danah Boyd (Softcover, 2014)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


What an eye-opener for me. At the end of this review, you can get my personal take on "social networking." Until this book, I just did not understand the appeal.

So what about the young person whose life is so bound by restrictions that social networking tools are a lifeline for social interaction? That's a very different situation from my own. I think I would use those tools, in that kind of circumstance. Boyd's research shows this is one of the major factors (there are others) that push teens into relying upon these technologies.

Notice I said research. This book is far more than an opinion piece that makes intelligent guesses. Boyd did extensive interviewing across the nation, and across many demographics. The appendix with the teen demographics shows that she sought to avoid selection bias, and I think she accomplished that. She also bolstered her own primary source research with a huge number of written works; the 22 page bibliography is massive for a book of this size (184 pages of text from Chapter 1 through Chapter 8).

She also explodes some pervasive myths. One that has long annoyed me is the idea that kids are inherently computer-savvy digirati. I don't know why this myth gets any traction. It takes time and experience to develop a digital skill set. Kids are inherently not computer-savvy. They have to overcome a relative lack of experience to drawn upon for understanding. When I've helped kids improve their digital skill set, I've not been able to use the same metaphors an analogies that work well with adults.

What I have found, however, is kids generally don't fear the technology and are determined to be its master rather than the other way around. Adults who lack a technical background often expect to grasp things instantly, then go into a brain shutdown state of fear when they don't; as if nobody else actually struggles with these things. The reality is everyone has to climb the learning curve.

Boyd was able to show a vast difference in the skill sets among young people. Her research validated an opinion I've spouted many times over the years. It's that digital competence is not an age thing. It's more complicated than that. For teens, but a key factor is the teen's socioeconomic status. For example, kids who grow up in a home with computers have many opportunities to interact with computers and learn, while kids who grow up without that access don't have those opportunities.

In my own case, I first used a computer on the job (when I was a kid, we didn't even have pocket calculators yet). Work forced me to learn, because I wanted to succeed at my job. Working 55 hours a week with digital tools and being expected to produce results is very different from spending 30 minutes a week in the school library as your only computer experience.

Now, I've just touched on some highlights of the "it's complicated" aspect of the digital social life of today's teens. This book isn't a lightweight treatment that I can sum up in a list of six points or a couple of paragraphs. The whole books is pretty much that summary, albeit with supporting material. Boyd followed the dictum "write tight" and there's no fluff in this book. It pulled me in because it just kept peeling back layers on the metaphorical onion.

This actually surprised me, because she wrote a 28 page introduction that seemed to sum up whatever else she could say on the topic. But that wasn't the reality. The introduction really was an introduction. The book would keep building on that. When I finished reading, I looked again at the title and thought there is no way to come up with one that's more accurate.

Despite the fact that the subject is nuanced six ways to Sunday, Boyd managed to explain things in a straightforward way. I found the book to be highly accessible. I also liked the fact that she didn't seem to have an agenda and didn't try to portray a complicated subject as a simple one.

This book had word confusion errors, something that always annoys me. For example, Boyd repeatedly confused "who" with "whom" and said "poured" instead of "pored." But this was an uncorrected advance proof so probably this will be fixed in the final copy. Still a great read, even with these little glitches.

My take on social networking

I've never seen any reason to use social networking ("social notworking") sites or tools, such as Twitter and Facebook. I've never sent a text message, either--though in that case, I can see the value for certain situations. As a middle-aged adult, I've tolerated (but not understood) the teen practices of texting, tweeting, and posting. Thanks to Boyd, I now understand. And as the title of this book says, it's complicated.

Just to clarify, I'm not a technophobe. I'm an IEEE Senior Member and past Chair of the Computer Society (a local chapter of it, anyhow). I handle about 400 e-mails a day, do my own IT work (and help friends with theirs), and simply must find the Wi-Fi or other Internet access while traveling. I've been writing technical articles for trade and professional publications for about twenty years.

For one thing, I don't like being interrupted with tweets, texts, and other such things (for example, don't phone me and expect me to answer).

Nor do I want to consume my time with these things or with managing a profile on a "networking" site. I see it as, "life is too short." I was an early adopter of the smart phone, but after trying that decided not to do the cell phone thing (I have one, and it's off unless I need to make an emergency call).


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